Why the News of Ayodhya Temple Consecration Evoked Renewed Interest in the Ramanandi Sect

The medieval era tradition is known for coordination between different branches of Rambhakti, which is opposed to caste hatred and nurtures pluralism. The Ram temple will be opened on January 22, 2024.

Recently, there were many – one might say mixed – reactions to the decision of Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust that the consecration of Ram Lalla on January 22, 2024, in the under-construction ‘grand’ Ram temple will be held according to the tradition of the Ramanandi sect of Vaishnav sadhus and sanyasis or ascetics. Many people expressed surprise at the decision.

Before we discuss the reactions, first let us talk about the Trust’s decision. After the consecration, the Trust has decided to perform daily services, festivals, and rituals of Ram Lalla according to the Ramanandi practices. For this purpose, it has set up ‘Shri Ram Sevavidhi Vidhan Samiti’ which includes general secretary Champat Rai and two other members Nripendra Mishra and Anil Mishra while Mahant Kamalnayan Das, Ramanand Das and Maithili Kishori Sharan of Ayodhya’s Ramanandi sect have been appointed as guest members. This committee will get the puja rituals transcribed under its supervision and publish them in a book, so that there is no ambiguity at any level.

As soon as the news about the Trust’s decision broke, experts began speculating how far this chalk-and-cheese combination of Ramanandi sect, known for establishing coordination between different streams and branches of Rambhakti, preaching against caste hatred and nurturing pluralism, and Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, which is dominated by a particular caste, will work.

The design for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

It is noteworthy that since its formation, the Trust has been in the dock for inadequate and zero representation of Dalits and backward castes. Pluralism – the essence of this country – with its diversity of opinions (as also of its majority Hindus), is completely absent from the trust.

Many leaders of the above-mentioned castes allege that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad used them extensively in the movement for the construction of the Ram temple ‘there’, but once it was ‘successful’, they were denied even the slightest share in the credit for the success. In such a situation, what can one say about those ‘Muslim Harijans’, whom the Ramanandi sect had welcomed with open arms when it was at its peak, and who were the target of malicious hatred widely spread by the VHP during the temple movement?

Also read: Ayodhya: Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust Stirs Controversy Again

Ramanandi sect

The decision of the Trust, however, did arouse curiosity about the Ramanandi sect. This largest sect of Vaishnav sadhus and ascetics in the country was started in the medieval period by Swami Ramanand (respectfully addressed by his followers as Swami Jagatguru Shri Ramanandacharya).

Stamp issued in honour of Swami Ramanand. Photo: Government of India/Wikimedia Commons, GODL License

This sect accepts the Vishishtadvaita theory of ‘mukti’ (which is defined as the spirit of the world of Ram) and is one of the four oldest sects of Bairagi sadhus. The sect is also referred to as Bairagi, Ramavat, and Shri Sampradaya and believes in Paramopasya Dwibhujram as Brahma while its basic mantra is ‘Om Ramay Namah’. Along with various incarnations of Vishnu, they worship Sita and Hanuman as well, but consider the grace of both Ram and Vishnu indispensable for salvation.

It is believed that there is no other saviour besides them (Ram and Vishnu). Therefore, rituals are not given much importance but emphasis is laid on the followers being generous, understanding, and coordinated.

Many followers of the sect also consider Ramanand to be an incarnation of Rama. However, there are serious differences of opinion among scholars regarding the date and time of Ramanand’s birth. It is claimed that he was born in Allahabad, and as soon as he grew up, his religious parents sent him to the Shrimath located at Panchgangaghat of Swami Raghvanand of Kashi to study the scriptures. After completing the cycle of study and meditation under the discipleship of Swami Raghavananda, he set out on a pilgrimage.

But when he returned to Shrimath after gaining more knowledge and experience from various pilgrimages across the country, many of his fellow disciples refused to sit in his company and eat food with him presuming that he might have eaten food made or touched by impure hands during the wayfaring.

When the matter escalated, Guru Raghavanand ordered Ramanand to start a new sect as per his wisdom. According to some experts, this order of Guru Raghavanand was a punishment to Ramanand, or he could have ordered his fellow disciples to eat with Ramanand instead. But it does not seem true because in many ways Swami Raghavanand was also an egalitarian and taught students of all castes.

However, Ramanand accepted his Guru’s orders and never looked back. When he started the Ramanandi sect, he welcomed everyone to protest against how he was treated as an untouchable by his fellow disciples. In his preaching, he said, “No one cares about caste or creed, if you worship Hari, you belong to Hari.” The path of surrender to God is open to everyone and a person of any caste or varna can take Ram-mantra from him, he said. Kabir also borrowed this mantra from him in a unique way.

Later, Ramanand accepted Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, women, and Muslims among his disciples. Almost all caste-based prejudices were called ignorant practices and eliminated while efforts were made to bridge the gaps created due to hatred with love and equality. These efforts later played a big role in dealing with Hindu-Muslim animosity, Shaiva-Vaishnav dispute, caste hatred, differences of opinion, and social bitterness arising from them.

Prominent disciples of Ramananda included Kabirdas, Raidas (Ravidas), Narharyananda (Narharidas), Anantananda, Bhavananda, Surasari, Padmavati, Nabhadas, Dhanna (Jatt), Sena (Naai), Pipasen (Rajput) and Sadna (Qasai). Among them, Narharyanand became Narharidas after taking diksha, or being initiated by him and he is considered the guru of Sant Tulsidas. Not only was he a devout poet and saint he also had good knowledge of Sanskrit and Persian along with Brijbhasha.

But the major reason why Ramanand is counted among the greatest saints of the Bhakti movement is that he worked tirelessly to bring Rama bhakti from the sacred heights of the Himalayas to the huts of the poor. Also, to fulfil the duty of protecting it, he equipped the Bairagi Sadhus with weapons and organised them as Ani, or army, and got many of their Akharas established.

He was the first Acharya who brought the bhakti tradition that originated in the Dravidian region in the south to north India. An example of his wide acceptance is that among his disciples, there were both nirgunopasakas and sagunopasakas of Rama. His disciples like Kabir and Raidas took a different path, especially Kabir who went on to preach ‘One Rama is the son of Dasharatha, One Rama dwells at every ghat, One Rama spans the world, One Rama is beyond the world’, yet they accepted him as their Guru.

In the 16th century, Saint Agradas, the fourth generation of Ramanand’s disciple tradition, started the Rasik sect and many saints and mahants of Lord Rama’s Ayodhya were influenced by it. As mentioned earlier, one of the main disciples of Ramanand was Anantanand, whose disciple Krishnadas Payhari later became the initiation guru of Queen Balabai of King Prithviraj of Amer. Agradas was the disciple of Krishnadas Payahari. Therefore, many scholars see his Rasik sect as a new branch of the Ramanandi sect and also as a synonym of the Sakhi sect.

In the Rasik sect, not only is Lord Rama referred to as Ras Bihari and Kanak Bihari, but he is also ‘Anandkand, Dashrathananda, Deenbandhu, Darun Bhavabhayahari’ and ‘Navakanj Lochan Kanjmukh Karkanj Padakanjarunam’. He is also depicted as ‘Kandarp Aganit Amit Chhavi Navnil Neerad Sundaram’. Rama being the archer, Dinesh and the demon Daityavansh Nikandanam come later in this sect. As a sign of worship, he is sometimes portrayed sitting in a phool bangla or a swing. The Hindu month of Sawan is celebrated as his jhoolanotsav – festival of swings – and month-long fairs are organised.

As a result of this depiction, in the Ramlilas of Ayodhya, on the day of the killing of Ravana or conquering Lanka, Rama’s archer or warrior form is compulsorily shown, but there is no tradition of any major festival or fair on that day. Fairs are held in Kartik on its full moon day and in Chait on Ram Navami which is believed to be his birthday.

Even in the pictures following the tradition of Shri Ram Panchayat, Ram is seen with Sita and his three brothers in a reassuring posture for everyone. His praises are also sung by the devotees who claim that despite conquering Lanka by killing Ravana, he did not capture it. Why would he grab it when he had abandoned his father’s kingdom in Ayodhya too?

Krishna Pratap Singh is a senior journalist.

Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.